Marakt wiped his arm across his forehead and heaved a sigh. He slumped down into the wooden bench and snapped his fingers at the water bearer slouched on the stairs. The young man pushed himself to his feet and carried his huge urn down the stone steps to Marakt’s side. Marakt grabbed the sides of the urn and tipped it back, taking a long draught. Then, with a sour face, he pushed it away. He dug into the pouch at his belt, fished out a single bit and tossed it to the water bearer. The young man caught it and slipped it into his own belt pouch, then slowly tapped his foot. Marakt looked up and squinted into the sunlight. He grinned slightly at the water bearer’s expression and outstretched hand. Marakt waved him off and looked away. “What do you want?” he growled. “The water was hot.”<p> Marakt studiously ignored the man, who eventually picked up urn again and turned away, grumbling under his breath, “What did you expect, you kank-spawned miser?” Marakt grinned at that. Not really one of the worst insults he’d heard in his time. But then, he’d heard a lot. Being a templar’s agent wasn’t always one of the cushiest jobs. But it kept him fed, and sometimes provided some welcome entertainment. Not today, though. Today, he was baking away under the scorching midday sun, watching what passed for gladiatorial games in the makeshift arena of the dirt-farming village of Mizrokett. He was, in fact, totally, absolutely bored. It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate games. Far from it. He was one of the most avid and ardent enthusiasts of the games when he was home in Draj. But this, this excuse for games, would make the least enthusiastic games fan fall on his own sword. But that was the price you paid, being a templar’s agent.</p><p> Marakt sighed. Of all his duties, this was the probably the task he liked least. Scouting the rural games for talent, however unlikely the proposition was. He tipped his broad-brimmed hat back and scratched his head. So far today, he’d seen a pair of muls, that stubborn cross-breed of dwarf and human, beat each other into senselessness with their bare hands, a man suffer a broken arm, and three other fights end when one of the fighters was disarmed or knocked out.</p><p> He blew out a deep breath and grinned wryly. He knew what it was that he disliked most about rural games - the lack of blood. The games in Draj were some of the most brutal in the entire Tyr region, veritable bloodbaths, in fact. Out of the cities, in the small villages, they were very reluctant to conduct fights to the death. The population growth was small enough as it was.</p><p> Well, maybe he’d get lucky with the last fight scheduled for the day. He leant back and watched with half-lidded eyes as the first of the combatants, an impressively scarred and tattooed mul entered the sandy arena. The corners of his lips flicked up slightly. This was beginning to look somewhat promising. The mul looked like a veteran of the city arenas, probably an escaped slave. He moved to the centre of the arena and raised his arms to the crowd, receiving a thunderous roar in response. Marakt snorted softly. Quite a favourite, this one. Heavy strips of studded leather cris-crossed the mul’s broad chest and back. A scarred wooden shield was strapped to his left arm, and he bore an obsidian long sword in his right hand. The glossy, black blade glinted in the sun as it sliced through the air. The mul grinned, displaying a frightful set of sharpened, fang-like teeth, and bowed to the crowd. He moved to the far side of the arena and waited, his bald head bowed.</p><p> Marakt’s eyes flicked idly back to the entrance of the arena as the second combatant appeared. Then he sat upright sharply, a frown creasing his features. The second fighter was a young half-elf, but that wasn’t what had drawn his attention. What was unusual was that the half-elf was clad in the garb of a jazst, a curious mix of warrior, dancer and acrobat. Jazst were more entertainers than gladiators, and they usually appeared early on to whet the crowd’s appetite. It was unusual for them to be in the later draw, and almost unheard of for them to feature in the last bout of the day. The half-elf wore little, merely tight red leggings, leaving his impressively muscled chest bare. Sheathing each forearm and lower leg was a steel bracer, covered with small, razor sharp blades, the traditional and favoured weapons of the jazst. However, few people could afford what it must have cost to have the bracers constructed of metal. They were probably some family heirloom. </p><p> As the half-elf moved towards his opponent, Marakt leant across and tapped the shoulder of an old man beside him. When the man turned, Marakt jerked a thumb towards the arena below and whispered, “What’s this?”</p><p> Seeing not a templar’s agent, but merely a fellow aficionado of the games, the old man smiled affably. He bent his head to indicate the mul on the far side of the arena. “That’s Klazyk. He’s been around for about ten years, and he’s been the arena champion for every one of them.” His hand waved towards the half-elf. “Five years ago,” he continued, “Klazyk killed the kid’s father. He was a wandering elf jazst who came through here every so often to see the kid and his mother. Anyway, Klazyk hated the elf, and when they fought one time, he killed him after he’d already surrendered. No one minded much. Who really likes an elf, anyway? Except for the kid, that is. He minded. Seems his father had taught him something about being a jazst, because he challenged Klazyk three years ago. And lost. Then he challenged him again, two years ago. And lost again. But he was better. Have to admit that. It’s been two years since the kid last fought here. Yesterday, he came up to Klazyk and slugged him in the face. Then he challenged Klazyk again. Klazyk just laughed. So,” he shrugged, “that’s why we have a jazst fighting last.”</p><p> Marakt nodded, then leant back again. He’d been hoping against hope that maybe the jazst was something special that they’d saved for last. No such luck. He sighed and prepared to watch. Maybe something interesting might happen. He grinned. And maybe it’d…what do they call it…rain for a year in Draj.</p><p> As the jazst reached the centre of the arena, the mul raised his head and smiled. “Tricky elf,” he called. “None of your jazst trickery this time. Fight me like a real man. Fight me with blade.”</p><p> The half-elf paused, then grinned back. “As you wish, Klazyk, you fool.” The mul’s eyes hardened as the half-elf turned and signalled to the attendants standing in the arena entrance. His fingers flickered in an intricate sign language that sent one of the attendants scurrying away. The attendant, a teenaged boy, returned in a few minutes, bearing a pair of obsidian blades in his arms. He jogged across the hot sand to the jazst, who took the longswords, one in each hand, and swung them around his head, loosening his shoulders up.</p><p> The mul began a series of limbering exercises. The half-elf watched for a long minute, then raised his left arm, pointing his sword at the mul’s back. “Klazyk!” he called.</p><p> The mul turned and stared at the jazst. The half-elf waited for a moment then spoke again. “This ends here, mul.”</p><p> A slow grin spread across Klazyk’s face and he nodded. “Agreed, elf.”</p><p> Marakt’s body tautened slightly as he sat straight up, his eyes wide. If he read the situation correctly, the half-elf had just challenged the mul to mortal combat. Neither would leave the arena until one was dead. He looked at the old man beside him. The old man just shrugged. “Crazy kid,” he muttered.</p><p> The two gladiators squared off, then, at a signal from a man Marakt assumed to be a village elder, they began to circle each other slowly. Klazyk feinted a thrust at the jazst’s face, then grinned as the young half-elf backed away. “Look around you, tricky elf,” the mul taunted. “Take a deep breath. You won’t be around to do it again.”</p><p> The half-elf merely smiled and dodged again as the mul slashed at him. Klazyk frowned, annoyed and perplexed by the jazst’s calm. “I beat you before, tricky elf. I beat you this time.”</p><p> A low chuckle escaped the half-elf. “As you choose to believe,” he said. Then he was on the defensive suddenly, as Klazyk moved forward, slashing with his sword and punching with his shield. The crowd roared as the mul took the attack to his opponent and the half-elf retaliated. Blades clashed ineffectually for long minutes before the half-elf’s back foot slipped slightly. The slip cost him his concentration for a moment, but he recovered almost instantly. Seeing his momentary weakness, Klazyk lunged at him, but gained only a shallow cut along his ribs for his troubles, as the jazst danced aside. The half-elf backed away, smiling. He raised his sword to display the blood streaking the tip. “First blood, Klazyk,” he taunted. </p><p> The mul grunted and ran the fingers of his left hand along his ribs. He brought the hand up before him and stared at his blood-smeared fingers, then licked them clean. He grinned at the jazst, showing his bloody teeth in a grotesque display. “Last blood counts,” he reminded him. </p><p> The half-elf’s features composed themselves into a cold mask. “Quite right, Klazyk.” Then he sprang at the mul with surprising speed, his obsidian blades flashing as they struck in rapid succession. Only Klazyk’s battle-sharpened reflexes saved him as he managed to bring his weapon and shield up to block the swift blows.</p><p> Marakt sat forward in his seat, a small smile twitching the corners of his lips. You never knew what you could find out of the cities, and this could possibly be one instance when the time he had spent produced. Either of these two could fetch good money in Draj. The mul would fit right in with the unusually bloodthirsty games of his city, and the half-elf showed a remarkable turn of speed that could make him a great attraction. Absently he signalled to the water bearer he had snubbed earlier. The young man approached with even greater reluctance than before, but his reluctance changed to enthusiasm as Marakt pulled out a small silver coin and tossed it to him before grabbing the urn and taking a long swallow, his eyes never leaving the match below.</p><p> The combat had quickly developed a rhythm, the jazst dodging the mul’s powerful swings, then slipping inside his guard to strike swiftly, before dancing away again. Although the blows rarely struck, both combatants soon began to tire in the horrendous midday heat. The mul slowly began to gain the upper hand as the jazst’s fast fighting style drained his energy at a much quicker rate. After a particularly rapid exchange, the half-elf pulled back too slowly and Klazyk slammed the pommel of his sword into the jazst’s forehead, dazing him and knocking him to the ground. A low chuckle escaped Klazyk’s lips as he grasped his sword hilt in both hands and raised it high over his head. He stepped deliberately towards his fallen opponent, who lay prostrate, shaking his head slowly. Possibly the incredible heat radiating from the sand brought the young half-elf back to his senses, because he rolled aside just as Klazyk’s blade fell. The stroke laid his left shoulder open, but not deeply.</p><p> The jazst scrambled to his feet, retreating to the other side of the arena while the mul regained his balance from his huge blow. The jazst checked his wound swiftly then looked up as Klazyk spoke. “Tricky elf,” he called. “Not so confident now, eh?” He waved his sword in the air insultingly. “What do you know, tricky elf? Blood.” The mul grinned widely as he threw the jazst’s previous taunt back into his teeth.</p><p> The half-elf glared at him grimly. “Funny man, Klazyk,” he snarled. He tensed, then started to run straight towards the mul, both swords held low.</p><p> Marakt’s eyes gleamed as he anticipated the jazst’s tactics. The gladiator was preparing himself for an extremely difficult manoevre called the Dance of Whirling Blades. Marakt had seen it many times in the past, but he always enjoyed it - when it was performed well. It was a highly theatrical move that could drop an opponent in his tracks, but could just as often result in the death of the jazst who performed it, as it left him more open to ripostes than usual. Marakt slowly smiled as the half-elf neared his target. Klazyk hunkered down, bringing his sword and shield up to protect himself as best he could. Then Marakt’s mouth gaped open as something extraordinary happened. Between one step and the next, the jazst seemed to double his pace, accelerating towards the mul at tremendous speed. A metre from the cowering mul, the young jazst bunched his muscles and leaped forward, whipping his blades in tight arcs around his body as he spun through the air.</p><p> Marakt found himself on his feet, roaring along with the rest of the crowd as the half-elf virtually danced around his stupefied opponent. Never had he seen the Dance of Whirling Blades performed with such speed and skill. The twin swords laid open Klazyk’s hide, slicing the skin lightly here, cutting away small chunks of flesh there. The jazst whirled around, his head thrown back and his features ecstatic, his eyes bright and his mouth opened in a soaring song, totally caught up in his dance.</p><p> Klazyk was down on his knees, totally stunned. He had faced jazst before, had survived the Dance many times, but this was different. He had his hands so full trying to cover any exposed areas that he could barely even think of attacking. Even when he managed a weak thrust, his sword was deflected by the flashing blades.</p><p> Marakt shouted his approval as he watched the superb performance. After a long minute, the jazst danced away from the mul, still whirling his blades around his body. He stopped in the middle of the arena, panting heavily but still smiling, the adrenalin coursing through is body.</p><p> Klazyk staggered unsteadily to his feet. He wavered as he checked his wounds. None were serious, most just surface cuts and nicks, but they were numerous. The dozens of pumping wounds would take him down rapidly, bleeding him of his strength and any chance of victory, so if he were to survive, he’d have to move quickly. He looked up at the jazst, his teeth gritted. The half-elf reversed the sword in his left hand and thrust it deeply into the arena’s sands. Then he smiled at Klazyk and beckoned with his free hand, slowly and insultingly. Klazyk roared and charged towards him, his powerful legs pumping swiftly.</p><p> The jazst crouched down as the charging mul neared. Marakt saw his eyes narrow, calculating distances and speeds. Then he launched himself straight up into the air. He somersaulted above Klazyk’s head as the mul charged beneath him. Klazyk’s reflexes were impressive, braking his headlong rush as the jazst tumbled in the air, stopping just past the the flying half-elf. It was, however, those very reflexes that killed him. The jazst landed on one knee directly behind Klazyk. With the same incredible speed he had already demonstrated, he fastened both hands on the grip of his sword and thrust back and over his head.</p><p> Marakt jumped to his feet, screaming at the top of his lungs and punching the air with his fists, his eyes transfixed on the tableau below. The jazst continued to kneel, his arms supporting Klazyk’s dead weight. The blade had driven through the base of Klazyk’s neck and up into his brain. The scene remained frozen for long moments. Then the half-elf released his grip on his sword hilt, dropping the mul’s bleeding corpse to the arena sands. He rose to his feet, swaying with exhaustion, then fell onto his face.</p><p> Never could Marakt remember seeing such a wonderful fight, not even in Draj itself. He absolutely had to have the jazst. He swung to the old man beside him as attendants raced out to tend to the gladiators, both dead and alive, and demanded, “Who is that?”</p><p> “Who is that?” the old man repeated, his brow creased. “Why, he’s our new champion, of course.”</p><p> Marakt threw his hands into the air. “What’s his name, you old fool?”</p><p> The old man frowned for a second, then grinned, unable to remain angry after the spectacular games. “Thalandril. That’s Thalandril Elleseir.”</p>
Thalandril was receiving a rubdown when Marakt finally found him. The young half-elf looked up from where he lay as Marakt clattered down the short flight of stairs into the relatively cool, half-buried room. The tiny female masseuse didn't bother to look up as she worked on Thalandril's lower back. Thalandril raised an eyebrow as Marakt swept off his hat and sketched a small bow. "Do I know you?" he asked, his voice slightly muffled as he rested his chin against the wooden table he lay on.
"I'm afraid not, but allow me to introduce myself. I am Marakt Mar-Haaryn, agent for the noble house of Haaryn-El-Arn of Draj. I have a proposal you might find interesting."
Thalandril frowned slightly, then reached back and tapped the masseuse's arm gently. He swung around to sit on the edge of the table as the woman removed her hands from his back. He handed her a couple of ceramic pieces and smiled at her. She smiled back prettily, then leant forward and kissed him softly on the lips. She turned and left, never even acknowledging Marakt's presence.
As Marakt watched her leave, he asked curiously, "Who was that?"
Thalandril smiled. "That was Klazyk's personal masseuse." He pursed his lips. "Although I have a sneaking suspicion that wasn't all she did for him."
Marakt burst out laughing. "I suspect you may be right, my young friend."
Thalandril grinned. "Now what can I do for you, sir?"
Marakt turned and looked closely at the half-elf for the first time. By the Dragon! He was just a kid. At a guess, Marakt wouldn't have put him out of his teens yet. He had inherited the height of his elven father, but his body was much more muscular than any elf. His long hair was a deep red, highlighted by strong golden tones. The same gold was carried over into his eyes, eyes that resembled those of a hunting bird. His skin was tanned deeply, typical of anyone on Athas who spent much time beneath the harsh, crimson sun. His facial structure was a mixture of human and elf, with the long bones typical of elven-kind, yet those bones were covered with the flesh and muscle of a human, lending a warmth and kindness to his expression that was lacking in many elves.
Marakt realised that he must have been staring when Thalandril grinned and reached over to rub his left shoulder, his eyebrow raised quizzically. "Do I pass inspection, sir?" he asked, somewhat sarcastically.
Marakt smiled. "Sorry. I didn't mean to stare." He paused and looked at Thalandril for a long moment, evaluating the half-elf, one long finger tapping gently against his chin. "How old are you?" he asked eventually.
"Eighteen. Is that a problem?"
Marakt shook his head. "No, no. Not at all." He looked down and his eyes lit upon Thalandril's jazst weapons, the bracers and greaves that he'd worn earlier in the arena. "Where did you get those?" he asked curiously. "I was wondering that before. I mean, they must have cost a fortune."
Thalandril looked down at them, then slowly closed his eyes. "They used to belong to my father. I assume you know about him, since you're here."
Marakt nodded. "Yes. I heard about him."
"Now is there anything else, sir?"
Marakt smiled. "I'm no sir, Thalandril. My mother was the youngest daughter of Lord Gulan Haaryn-El-Arn's youngest son. I'm so far from being a sir that I might as well not exist, as far as Lord Gulan is concerned." He shrugged. "Basically, I just work for them. The point is, I have a proposal to make to you. I was in the stands earlier today. When you fought Klazyk. I think you could really go places as a gladiator. If," he held up a finger, "you had a sponsor and you fought in a major city. Draj, for example. Now I have no doubt I could find you a place in House Haaryn-El-Arn's gladiator stables, if you wish. You would be able to train, eat and live at the house's expense. All you would have to do is fight every so often, representing the house, of course. You would also have to split any money you earned from your fights with the house, but I suspect that would be more than allayed by the benefits of having such an illustrious sponser. Now what do you think of that?"
A grin slowly spread over Thalandril's face. "What do I think of that? I think it's great! I don't have any reason to stay here any more, and what prospects are there in a village this size?" he asked.
Marakt smiled. "Not many, I wouldn't think. But what about your mother? I heard that your father was...dead...but...?"
Thalandril sighed and looked down. "She died two years ago. Just after my last fight with Klazyk. Since then, I've only stayed to face Klazyk. And now..." he shrugged, as if to say, What is there for me here? "Now, in a city," he continued, "with the chance to do what I love and get paid for it...that's a different story."
Marakt's brow creased. "Do what you love? Do you mean fight?"
Thalandril shook his head. "That's only a part of it. It's the Dance that's important to me. Jazst fighting is an art-form," he explained, "a Dance. It's one way that...that I get in touch with myself. And that's what I love. Do you understand?"
Marakt nodded absently, not entirely sure that he did. "So it's agreed?" he asked, quickly changing the subject. "You'll come?"
Thalandril smiled. "Agreed. When do we leave?"
Marakt looked into the youth's eyes and a twinge of reproach crept over him for a moment. How could he do this to such a young, trusting man? Because, he answered himself, that's what he was paid for. He forced a smile and clapped his arm around Thalandril's shoulders. "As soon as you're ready. We still have to iron out the details of your contract with the house, but we can take care of that on the way to Draj. Believe me, you'll love the place."
Thalandril looked up at Marakt, his piercing eyes boring deep into the older man's face. Then he smiled. "I'll have to take your word for that."
Marakt chuckled, then his face took on a more serious expression. "I certainly hope the good citizens of Mizrokett won't object too much to me stealing their new champion."
Thalandril fought back a smile as he replied. "Oh, surely not. They're very forgiving people. Still," he said contemplatively, "if I were you, I'd watch my back for a while. At least until we leave town." He paused for a moment. "And then I'd hide for a long time."
Marakt laughed. "Now where have I heard that before?" he asked with a wink. "What say we get out of here...before anyone finds out?"
Thalandril grinned. "Sounds good to me."
Thalandril shifted uncomfortably on the long, stone bench. He looked across at Marakt. The older man smiled. "Don't worry, Thalan. It won't be too much longer. You have to understand that Lord Gulan is a very busy man. Well," he amended, "fairly busy. It's his grandson and heir, Ireniel, who's the really busy one. He's the one you'll be meeting. We don't bother Lord Gulan with everyday details, such as new contracts." He grinned. "Even contracts with gladiators like you."<p> Thalandril nodded and turned back to his inspection of the hall in which he sat. It was quite impressive, despite merely being an adjunct to the great hall of House Haaryn-El-Arn. The high walls and fluted columns that ran down either side of the hall were all constructed from some white stone, possibly marble, although Thalandril wasn't sure, his experience with stone so far being limited to viewing the occasional outcropping of rock in the deserts surrounding Mizrokett. Elaborate hangings decorated the walls and other benches, identical to the one he and Marakt currently occupied, sat hidden between the columns. He tapped his foot softly on the ground, unused to such grandeur and quite uncomfortable with it.</p><p> Then two great wooden doors on the opposite side of the hallway opened slowly. A party of richly dressed men emerged from the great hall beyond. Thalandril started as Marakt nudged him before standing and bowing to the men as they neared. Thalandril followed Marakt's lead hesitantly, but could not resist raising his head to sneak a look at the men as they approached.</p><p> There were five men. All wore robes of intricately embroidered silk. The three in the rear were practically identical. Thalandril's sharp eyes could barely pick out the minute differences in their features. It was, however, the two at the front of the party that he studied most closely. One was a tall man of, or approaching, middle age. His black hair and thick black beard were showing streaks of grey. His robe was a rich crimson, embroidered with golden thread. His piercing blue eyes swept the hallway, stopping on Marakt and Thalandril. He bent and whispered into the ear of the fifth man, who was leaning slightly on his arm. The last man was very old, his hair and beard completely white. His robes were a deep purple, again embroidered with gold. He was an inch or two shorter than the man upon whose arm he leant, but his back was ever so slightly hunched. He nodded as the other man whispered into his ear. The man in the red robes took the older man's arm and handed it to one of the other three men, then waited as the four moved past him and up the hall.</p><p> Marakt straightened as the man in the red robe stepped towards them, and Thalandril followed suit. Marakt turned his head slightly and whispered to Thalandril, "That old man was Lord Gulan. He's nearly a hundred years old. This fine fellow coming to see us is Lord Ireniel and those other three were Ireniel's sons. Now be polite when Ireniel is talking, and don't say anything unless he asks you to."</p><p> Thalandril looked down at Marakt. "Why not? I'm not a servant or anything."</p><p> Marakt whispered soothingly, "I know, I know. It's just considered polite. After all, he is a noble."</p><p> Thalandril nodded slightly. "I see. So basically you're saying commoners shouldn't talk to the nobility like they would to other commoners or the nobles might be reminded that they're just people too."</p><p> Marakt chuckled softly. "Precisely. At least in most cases. Ireniel isn't like that, but still, I wouldn't let him hear you say that. Now be quiet."</p><p> Thalandril looked up as Lord Ireniel stopped before them and spoke. "Now who is this you have here, Marakt?"</p><p> "This, my Lord Ireniel, is Thalandril Elleseir, a native of Mizrokett and a jazst."</p><p> "Mizrokett?" asked Ireniel, a puzzled expression on his face. "I must confess I've never heard of it."</p><p> "Not surprising," Thalandril muttered.</p><p> Ireniel looked at him sharply, then smiled. "Ah, a man with a tongue in his head. Please, Thalandril, why don't you tell me about yourself?"</p><p> Marakt raised an eyebrow quizzically, then nodded to Thalandril. Thalandril cleared his throat softly. "There's not all that much to tell, really, Lord Ireniel. As, uh, Marakt said, I'm from a small village called Mizrokett. Marakt offered me a sponsorship with your house as a gladiator."</p><p> "Did he now?" Ireniel thoughtfully tapped his chin. "Well, I must tell you, Thalandril, Marakt rarely brings back anyone from his little jaunts out of the city. Still, I do respect his judgement." He smiled. "I'll tell you what. You go see the head trainer and if he says you're any good, we'll pay for you to enter the training school."</p><p> Thalandril's brow creased with puzzlement. "Forgive me, my lord, but I don't understand. I thought I was to receive training in your house."</p><p> Ireniel smiled. "Fret not, my dear jazst. You will. If you come back from the training school. It's a requirement of the arena that anyone who fights there, save for condemned criminals, must have graduated from the training school. It's nothing to worry about. You just go down and I'll send Marakt to join you in a few moments." He beckoned to a guard beside the great double doors, who hastened over. "Take this man down to the pits and wait there for Marakt." The guard nodded and led Thalandril away.</p><p> Ireniel stood, hands on hips, watching the two leave. "Is he any good?" he queried softly.</p><p> "Exceptional. He could become one of the best. If not <em>the</em> best.</p><p> Ireniel nodded slowly, then turned back to Marakt. "Now what's all this about, Marakt? Don't you work for my dear brother, the templar?" he asked, nearly spitting the word templar out.</p><p> Marakt smiled slightly. "I do. But I'm still a member of House Haaryn-El-Arn." He sighed. "It's a little complicated, Uncle Ireniel, but I'll try to explain. When I saw Thalandril fight, I knew I couldn't leave him in obscurity like that. But Thalandril is no slave. It's not fighting to him. It's more of an art form. And he couldn't fight as a slave. He wouldn't have the will. Well, unless he didn't know he was a slave. But that's neither here nor there. No matter what anyone says he'd be no better than a slave if he fought for the city and that'd kill him as surely as the Dragon would. The point is, he was where he was and he'd be wasted in the city's slave pits. So I brought him here. I'm sure you won't mind. If he turns out like I think he will, he'll bring a great deal of glory to the house."</p><p> Ireniel nodded again. "As you say." He paused for a moment, then continued. "All right, Marakt." He smiled. "I could never refuse anything to the son of my favourite cousin, now, could I?"</p><p> Marakt smiled back. "No, I don't think you ever have. That's probably why I've kept my requests modest enough. I wouldn't want to bankrupt the house."</p><p> Ireniel chuckled and embraced Marakt. "Why won't you come back to the house, Marakt? You don't have to live like an exile. Or work for the templars."</p><p> Marakt squeezed Irenial's forearms as he stepped back. "It's not that easy, Uncle Ireniel. Not everyone in the family feels as you do. My grandfather still hasn't forgiven me for what mother did. And as far as Lord Gulan goes..."</p><p> Ireniel nodded. "Yes. Grandfather won't even admit that you exist. Well, I'll see what I can do for your young gladiator. Take care of yourself. And don't stay away too long," Ireniel glanced down the hall and his face set into grim lines. "Ah. Here comes my dear brother. You'll have to explain to him now. I'd best be off. I'd probably just make it harder for you."</p><p> "Take care of yourself, uncle. And watch yourself. If I've learnt anything working for Uncle Ilash I've learnt that not every noble is as nice as you."</p><p> Ireniel chuckled. "Uncle Ilash. I wouldn't call him that to his face if I were you."</p><p> "I don't."</p><p> Ireniel nodded and moved away, passing a hurrying figure in flowing black robes. Neither man stopped to acknowledge the other. Marakt sighed. Ilash was in a really bad mood if he wouldn't even take the time to try to antagonise his brother. He'd have to talk fast here.</p><p> Ilash stopped before Marakt and glared down at the shorter man. He bore a very strong resemblance to Ireniel save for the fact that he wore no beard and for the apparent difference in age. The piercing blue eyes were the same, but unless one knew the two men, one would have thought that Ilash was at least ten years older than his brother. His face was deeply lined and scarred and his hair prematurely shot through with white. Despite his apparent age there was no frailty in his body. His shoulders were very broad and built up with thick slabs of muscle, giving him a very uncommon appearance for the usually studious templars. In fact he resembled a gladiator more than a templar, unsurprisingly when it is considered that he he had once been one. In his youth he had performed as a free gladiator in the Palace of Gladiatorial Combat before the sorcerer-king, Tectuktitlay. Now Ilash served as a templar to Tectuktitlay's son, Atzetuk. And Marakt served Ilash.</p><p> Ilash continued to wait, slowly tapping his foot. Marakt eventually smiled and spoke. "And how are you today, cousin?"</p><p> Ilash's eyes narrowed. "I am well, cousin," he replied in his harsh, terrible voice. "But I've heard news that disturbs me. About you. And about...a certain acquisition. Would you care to enlighten me?"</p><p> Marakt smiled again, weakly this time. "Ah...you've already heard. I had wanted to tell you myself."</p><p> "Well then. Tell me."</p><p> "Certainly, Lord Ilash. I've found a young gladiator, a jazst. Very promising. So I brought him back to the house."</p><p> Ilash raised a finger and interrupted. "Ah. Now this is the part that disturbs me. I was under the impression that you were employed by me, cousin. Not House Haaryn-El-Arn. Tell me, is my assumption incorrect?"</p><p> "No it is not, my Lord Ilash."</p><p> "Then why, pray tell, did you bring the gladiator back here and not to me?" Ilash hissed softly.</p><p> Marakt gulped. The quieter Ilash's voice became, the more angry he was. He'd really have to step lightly here. "This gladiator, Thalandril Elleseir by name, is different to most. He's an artist." Ilash snorted and Marakt held up a hand. "Please, bear with me here, cousin. I am very serious. He would not react well to the environment in the city stables. Here, he has the potential to garner much glory. There, he would die a swift death. Remember, you are still affiliated with this house. Wouldn't you consider it better to share some of the glory with the house than to receive none at all? And you can always tell the other templars that he is your gladiator and that you thought it best to have him stabled here, can't you? I mean, that is essentially true, is it not?"</p><p> Ilash nodded slowly. "You have a point there, cousin." He paused, thinking. "All right. It is done. The house will administer my gladiator, and you will have word spread that he <em>is</em> my gladiator. If he turns out, that is." Ilash smiled. "If he fails, the house can suffer the embarrassment."</p><p> Marakt smiled with relief. "As you wish, my lord."</p><p> Ilash grinned suddenly. "You have done well, Marakt. Now get down to the pits and make sure nothing happens to my gladiator."</p><p> Marakt nodded, then bowed quickly and hurried away. Ilash watched him leave, then turned away, staring down the hall in the direction Ireniel had left.</p>
Marakt found Thalandril watching a sparring match between a pair of house gladiators. He stepped up to the guard standing by the half-elf's side and tapped him on the shoulder. The guard turned, then performed a half-bow and left as Marakt signalled him away. Marakt moved up beside Thalandril, curious to see what had captured the jazst's attention.
The biggest of the gladiators towered over his opponent. He was, in fact, a half-giant, a magical blend of human and giant. He wast a good deal over ten feet tall, and had shoulders nearly half as wide. He wore only sandals and a loincloth, displaying his amazing physique openly. He swung a huge, wooden two-handed sword with ease, crashing it against the other gladiator's shield.
The second gladiator was a woman. She wielded a wooden longsword and shield, and was clad in a loincloth, halter-top and sandals, leaving very little of her body to the observer's imagination. Not that most people would care to imagine her as anything other than what she was. Her entire body was uncommonly muscled from a lifetime of gladiatorial training and combat. Although obviously strong, she was quite slim and wiry, her muscles toughening her rather than adding additional bulk. Marakt felt his cheeks redden as his gaze was drawn to her assertive, thrusting bust, which was covered, but not concealed, by the ragged cloth halter. Marakt forced his eyes up and away from her body. Covering her entire head was a heavy, lacquered wooden helm in the shape of a lion's head. Marakt looked closer, then nodded to himself. The helm was totally enclosed save for a pair of earholes that allowed sound to reach the gladiator within. The woman was a blindfighter, one of the few gladiators who could fight just as well as any sighted gladiator while deprived of vision. They mastered the difficult art of centering themselves in order to heighten their other senses to compensate for the lack of vision. The best blindfighters could fight any other gladiator and still win, even when distracted by the roar of the crowd in an arena. And this woman was very good. Marakt hadn't been down in the house fighting pits for quite some time and he didn't recognise her.
Thalandril and Marakt stood side by side, watching as the contest drew to a close. The blindfighter had been slowly moving around, drawing the half-giant's strikes to her left side and sliding them away with her shield. Then, as the huge gladiator released a blow, she jumped to the left, parrying with her sword and pushing forward, throwing the half-giant off balance. Then the woman leapt inside her opponent's guard, slamming her shield against the inside of his knee. The half-giant's leg buckled, and he crashed to the ground. The blindfighter leapt atop his broad back and touched her sword to his neck. Then she tossed her sword away and, with a muffled laugh, knelt to pat the half-giant's head.
The half-giant smiled wryly as the blindfighter dropped lightly to the floor and began to help him up. "Damn it, woman," he boomed, chuckling, "how do you always do that to me?"
The woman unbuckled her shield and pulled off her heavy helm, releasing long, sandy-blond hair that draped itself heavily around her head, soaked as it was with sweat. "You always underestimate me, Jaxsil. That's why I always beat you."
Thalandril turned, expecting to see the guard who had accompanied him down and started when his gaze fell on Marakt. Then he grinned. "Don't be so quiet, Marakt. You scared me. Nearly."
Marakt laughed. "Nearly, eh?"
"Well, I mean, you're not particularly scary. Now if you looked more like that half-giant over there, that would've scared me."
"I can imagine."
Thalandril turned back to look at the two gladiators still collecting their equipment. Marakt glanced up at him, then smiled slyly. "She's good, isn't she?"
Thalandril nodded. "Who is she?"
Marakt shrugged. "I've never met her before. Shall we find out?"
Thalandril nodded absently, his eyes straying back to the woman. Marakt raised his hand to his mouth and whistled sharply. A brutal-looking mul on the other side of the sparring pit glanced up and Marakt waved him over. The mul nodded, jumping down into the pit and jogging over. Marakt extended a hand to the mul and he hauled himself from the pit. He half-bowed to Marakt. "Lord Marakt," he said.
"Shalix. Where's Ulaneal?"
The mul waved his hand behind him absently. "Conducting a class. I could get him for you if you want."
Marakt shook his head. "Not just yet. I want to introduce you to someone." He half-turned and gestured to Thalandril. "This is Thalandril. He'll be joining you soon." Then he grinned. "If Ulaneal and the training school say he's good enough. Which I have no doubt they will."
Shalix nodded to Thalandril. "That's quite a recommendation coming from Lord Marakt."
Marakt looked at Thalandril. "This is Shalix. He's one of the trainers and he's directly below Ulaneal in the chain of command. So get used to doing what he says."
Thalandril smiled and nodded. "I think I can manage that."
Marakt turned back to Shalix. "Tell me, who's the new gladiator?" He indicated the woman with a jerk of his head.
"I'll get her." Shalix clapped his hands and shouted, "Iymrae! Get up here!"
The woman's head jerked up, then she handed her equipment to the half-giant Jaxsil and trotted across the pit. She stopped below the trio and raised her head. "You bellowed, Shalix?" she asked sarcastically.
Shalix grinned. "Get your butt up here, woman," he ordered. "Got someone here you should meet."
Iymrae sniffed. "Is that so? Well, catch me then." She stepped back from the pit wall, then took two steps and jumped straight up. Shalix leant forward to grab her, but someone else was faster.
"Allow me," Thalandril murmured as he scooped Iymrae out of the air and placed her by his side. Marakt couldn't restrain a smile as the young half-elf winked at him.
Iymrae sniffed the air experimentally, then placed one hand on Thalandril's arm. "You're not Shalix," she declared sharply. "Who are you?"
"A damned forward half-elf," Marakt quipped.
Iymrae turned her head towards Marakt. "I don't know your voice. Who are you two?"
Thalandril's brow furrowed and he looked closely at her. Her eyes were a lovely, deep green, but there was no animation in them, no life. "You're really blind," he blurted wonderingly.
Iymrae spun on him. "Yes, I am," she spat, her voice dangerously low. "Do you have a problem with that?"
"Uh, no," Thalandril stammered. "I, uh, I'm sorry. I didn't intend any offence. I was just surprised that someone who's blind could fight like that. You know...uh..." His voice trailed off painfully.
"Yes, do go on," Iymrae said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "Your comments are so enlightening."
Marakt grinned. "Digging yourself in there, boy," he commented. He looked at Shalix. "Want to take care of the introductions, Shalix?"
The mul nodded. "Lord Marakt, this is Iymrae De'Laelen. She's been with us for about six months now. Iymrae, this is Lord Marakt Mar-Haaryn."
Marakt half-bowed. "Second cousin of Lord Ireniel and great-grandson of the illustrious Lord Gulan. A pleasure, dear lady."
Iymrae's lips twisted in a sardonic smile. "As insincere as any noble, aren't you, Lord Marakt."
Marakt waved one hand dismissively. "I do try ever so hard, my dear."
Iymrae laughed softly. "Well it seems you have it down pat, my lord."
Shalix cleared his throat loudly. Iymrae stiffened slightly, then bowed her head. "Forgive me, my lord. I didn't mean to be insolent." Her voice was still hard and defiant.
Marakt grinned. "Pay it no mind, Iymrae dear. I don't take offense easily. But not every one of us stinking nobles are so forgiving."
Iymrae cocked her head curiously. "I'll take your word for that, Lord Marakt," she said, her voice gentler.
Marakt smiled. "Allow me to introduce my rather forward friend here. Standing behind you there is Thalandril Elleseir, a jazst of my acquaintance. He'll be joining the ranks once he gets through the training school."
Iymrae snorted. "If he gets through, you mean."
Thalandril frowned. "Please," he scoffed. "How hard can it be? I'll be back before you know it, then...maybe we can get to know each other better," he ventured with a shy smile.
Iymrae laughed shortly. "It's a lot harder than you seem to think, fool. If you do get back, maybe I'll beat some humility into you." She turned to Shalix. "I have to get back to training," she said. She jumped back down into the arena and stalked away, but not before Thalandril heard her mutter, "Jazst, eh?" and snort under her breath.
Thalandril turned to Marakt, a look of surprise on his face and Marakt laughed, then turned to Shalix. "Now where did you say Ulaneal was?" Shalix took the hint and hurried off to find the head trainer. Marakt looked at Thalandril again. "Don't worry, Thalan. I'm sure Iymrae will like you more when she gets to know you better."
"What did she mean by that crack about jazst?"
Marakt raised an eyebrow. "You really don't know?"
Thalandril shook his head. "This is the first time I've left Mizrokett. I guess there's a lot I don't know."
"Ah. Well, most gladiators don't think much of jazst. They think you're all actors and dancers, not fighters." Marakt grinned. "You'll have to change their minds when you get back from the training school."
"If I do." Thalandril stared at Marakt. "Is it really as hard as she said?"
Marakt rubbed his chin. "I'd have to say yes. I'm sure you can make it. But don't get complacent. That can kill you."
Thalandril raised his eyebrows. "Kill me? I thought it was a school."
"It is. But it's trying to teach you how to survive in the arena. So, yes. It can kill you."
"I see. Is there anything else you haven't told me, my lord?" Thalandril queried sarcastically.
Marakt's lips quirked. "Not that I can think of off the top of my head. Just remember one thing. Life is very different here to what you're used to. Be careful." Then he grinned. "And don't call me lord. I've told you about that already."
"Then why does Shalix call you lord?"
"It helps to keep the discipline when I'm around. The gladiators are more inclined to obey me if they think I'm a noble." Marakt paused. "I guess I am, technically. But I certainly don't feel like one." He shrugged. "It doesn't really matter, anyway." He turned as the sound of sandals pattering against dirt reached his ears. "Ah, here comes Ulaneal."
Thalandril looked up and blinked. Ulaneal, head trainer of House Haaryn-El-Arn, was an elf. It wasn't the mere fact that he was an elf that surprised Thalandril. It was the fact that an elf would serve in a city under humans. The elves of Athas were very clannish, roaming the sands in tribes of hunters, traders or raiders. Very few elves ever made a permanent life for themselves in civilisation and even then they mostly kept together, claiming sections of whichever city or village they occupied for their race and their race alone. They were very superior, looking down on the other races of Athas, including humans and especially the half-elven crossbreeds. Very few half-elves every found acceptance in elven society. Thalandril knew this from experience. While his father had loved him and cared for him whenever his nomadic lifestyle allowed, even teaching him his art, there had always been a distance between them, a distance that could not be overcome. Thalandril wondered, however, if an elf who lived with humans might possibly be more cosmopolitan, maybe even accepting him. His questions were soon dispelled.
Ulaneal stopped beside Marakt and glared down at the pair. His lanky, corded frame towered even over Thalandril. His blue-dyed hair rose high from the middle of his head, then fell to his shoulders. Shaved pate gleamed on either side of the dyed crest. Hazel eyes stared from the scarred face of an ex-gladiator. He folded his wiry arms and spoke in a surprisingly deep and throaty voice. "You wish to speak with me, Marakt?"
"Yes, Ulaneal. I don't know if Shalix told you anything, but we have a new gladiator. You're to evaluate Thalandril here and if you are satisfied with his performance, the house will put him through training school and sponsor him."
Ulaneal's eyes fixed on Thalandril for the first time and narrowed. "A half-elf?" He stared long and hard at Thalandril, measuring his appearance. Then his eyes alighted on the bracers and greaves Thalandril wore. "You're a jazst?" he said, raising his eyebrows, the comment more of a statement than a question. Thalandril nodded shortly and the elf grunted. "Doesn't surprise me. Fools and beggars all." He swung on Marakt. "I don't deal with things like him," he spat.
Marakt sighed. "Let me rephrase that, then. You are to evaluate Thalandril objectively, by order of Lord Ireniel, and you will give me youre unbiased opinion of his abilities and whether or not we should sponsor him."
The elf glared at Marakt for a long moment and a contest of wills ensued, Ulaneal bordering on outright defiance as his nature warred with his loyalty to the house. Finally Ulanael looked away and nodded. "As you wish, Marakt." He turned and stalked over to a nearby wooden rack against the wall, pulling two practise swords from it. He threw one to Thalandril, then took three steps and dropped down into the pit. He looked up at Thalandril and called, "Well? Are you coming, half-breed?"
Thalandril, who had been growing angrier by the moment during Ulaneal's and Marakt's exchange, snarled, "Gladly, elf." He leapt off the edge of the pit. To his surprise, Ulaneal swung a vicious stroke at his unprotected body as he dropped through the air. He barely managed to shunt it aside, still taking a punishing blow to his right shoulder, which knocked him off balance. "What in the Dragon's name was that?" he snapped as he regained his balance and moved into a guard stance.
Ulaneal stared at him, genuinely surprised. "You really think your opponent will wait until you're ready, half-breed? Then you're a bigger fool than I took you for." He glanced up at Marakt. "Forget it," he called. "There's no point. He'd die in his first match. If he ever made it that far." His eyes dropped back to Thalandril. "No room for trust in the arena, half-breed."
Marakt shook his head. "Objectively, Ulaneal."
The elf glared up at Marakt. In that instant, Thalandril took a short step forward and flicked his sword up to slap against Ulaneal's left cheek, the wooden blade leaving an angry red mark. Ulaneal's head whipped down, his eyes wide with rage and Thalandril grinned. "Am I learning?" he asked facetiously.
Ulaneal hissed and moved forward to attack. His steps were so swift and sure that his feet seemed to glide over the ground rather than touching it. Thalandril was hard pressed to keep Ulaneal's flashing blade out. He ducked, dodged and rolled, trying to put some distance between them so he could regain his breath and composure, but Ulaneal was relentless. As he pressed Thalandril back, he began a taunting commentary, pointing out the faults in his stance, his guard and his attacks.
Thalandril felt his cheeks beginning to burn at Ulaneal's critique, his temper rising in accord with his colour. The gladiators milling around quickly gathered by the edge of the pit, watching and laughing. Thalandril could feel Marakt's gaze boring into his back, and Iymrae's scornful, barking laugh sounded from the crowd as she called, "Need some help there, jazst?"
Thalandril gritted his teeth and his face set into hard lines, his temper nearing boiling point. He fought it back, trying to keep a clear head. Then Ulaneal spoke again. "Your technique is awful, you know. Who taught you, a brain-dead mekillot?"
That decided the issue. Thalandril let out a low growl as his temper snapped. Watching closely from the pit's edge, Marakt raised his eyebrows as the direction of the fight skewed. In the middle of a dodge, Thalandril performed a quick, stuttering step, then struck with a sudden burst of speed, just as he had in the fight with Klazyk.
Ulaneal fell back, completely bewildered by the turn of events. Initially confident, he now found himself on the back foot, struggling to hold the raging half-elf at bay. Thalandril struck again and again, his sword darting in and out, parrying, twisting and slashing. Despite the fact that both swords were only blunt wood, many of Thalandril's strikes drew blood, and the rest left harsh, red marks that were certain to develop into huge bruises.
The fight ended as suddenly and viciously as it had begun. After a particularly heavy hit had staggered Ulaneal, Thalandril lowered his shoulder and drove it at the elf's chest. The elf, however, was no longer there. He had slid to one side as Thalandril had begun his charge, then whirled around to face the half-elf's back. As Thalandril skidded to a halt, Ulaneal stepped in, swinging a huge blow at his shoulders. Thalandril couldn't stifle a low cry as the wooden blade shattered from the force of the strike, the jagged fragments tearing into his flesh. He spun on the elf with a snarl, but again Ulaneal anticipated the move, gliding around behind Thalandril once more. Before Thalandril could regain his balance, Ulaneal's leg slithered between his, hooking around his shin and sending him crashing to the ground.
Thalandril bounced back to his feet almost as soon as he had hit the ground and moved towards Ulaneal, but the elf merely shook his head. "It's done, half-breed," he snapped. He stepped towards Thalandril, slowly and with great dignity, despite his many cuts and bruises, but Thalandril met his angry gaze unflinchingly. Ulaneal stared down at him for a long moment, then turned away. "You're overconfident, half-breed," he said, his voice carrying clearly back over his shoulder as he walked away.
Marakt's voice floated down into the pit. "What do you think, Ulaneal? Should we sponsor him?"
Ulaneal slowly lifted his head and locked eyes with the smiling human, hatred blazoned across his face. "Waste your bloody money on the damned half-breed for all I care, Marakt," he spat. The he grabbed the edge of the pit and swung himself up. He looked down at Thalandril, who stared back defiantly, then stalked away.